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How to Survive the Holidays with DBT’s Cope Ahead Skill

Updated: Nov 22, 2021

If you grew up in America, I’d wager a bet that you were fed what I’ll call “the American dream for the holidays.” You know the one, the Norman Rockwell-esque Thanksgiving scene featuring a blissfully happy family, with a fat turkey right in the middle of all the smiling faces. Maybe you also grew up reading The Polar Express, watching The Santa Claus and hearing the Christmas jingles play on most radio stations for a few weeks straight, all chanting their lyrics about the “magic,” the “joy” of the holidays. I do hope everyone gets to experience the magic and joy of the holidays, but what these books, movies, and artworks fail to capture is how stressful, grief-stricken, disappointing, or anxiety-inducing the holidays, or portions of them, can be for many people.

Thankfully, there’s a great therapy model called DBT, or Dialectical Behavior Therapy, that teaches crucial skills to help individuals get through emotionally difficult times. One DBT skill stands out, particularly in its ability to help us prepare for upcoming stress: Cope Ahead. Cope Ahead is exactly as it sounds: a reminder that when we know hard situations are coming, we can be intentional to plan how we will cope with them. Most of us have at least a short mental list of what we want to do during big feelings or freakouts, so it would serve us to think intentionally about how and when we would use those skills.

Cope Ahead has 4 steps:

  1. Describe the situation that is likely to cause negative emotions, and name the hard emotion

    1. “I’m worried about all the people who will be talking about their diets and exercise routines around the holidays. I know I’ll feel anxious, hearing my ED voice.”

  2. Decide what coping skills you can use

    1. “I can use deep breathing exercises, grounding techniques (like 5,4,3,2,1), and taking a break from the situation to spend some time alone”

  3. Imagine the situation in your mind, and rehearse how you will cope effectively. Play the situation out like a movie and find the different ways you can take care of yourself in the moment.

  4. Implement the plan and the skills if/when the time comes!

I hope Cope Ahead will help you this holiday season. Whatever stressor you expect to arise, try it out and see how planning for the hard emotions and what you can do with them will help you feel much more prepared and regulated when the time comes.

I wish you and yours a very merry holiday season.

All the best,

Hannah Vogt, LCSW

If you would like more information or support, call or text (512)655-3878 today!

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